Townes Van Zandt, singer and songwriter, was born John Townes Van Zandt in Fort Worth on March 7, 1944. He was the son of Harris William and Dorothy (Townes) Van Zandt. The Van Zandts were a wealthy family whose ancestors were among the founding families of Fort Worth. The law school building at the University of Texas at Austin, Townes Hall, bears the mother's family name. Van Zandt attended a private school in Minnesota and later the University of Colorado. Instead of law school and a future in the family oil business, he opted for a rootless life as a roaming singer and songwriter.
Once claiming that he wanted to know what it was like to fall, he sat on his fourth-floor balcony during a party and leaned slowly backward until he dropped. He came through without injury, but his family submitted him for psychiatric evaluation. The doctors diagnosed him as a "schizophrenic–reactionary manic depressive" and gave him insulin shock therapy, which is said to have erased his childhood memories and left him without any attachment to his past. Despite emotional and psychological problems, Van Zandt eventually wore such labels as "poet laureate of Texas," "premier poet of the time," "the James Joyce of Texan songwriting" and "the best writer in the country genre." He was married three times: to Fran Petters (1965–70; one son); to Cindi Morgan (1978–83); and to Jeanene Munselle (1983–94; one son and one daughter). All of the marriages ended in divorce.
Van Zandt was greatly influenced by Elvis Presley, Sam Lightnin' Hopkins, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and the early work of Bob Dylan. At the age of fifteen, he started playing the guitar after seeing Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. In the mid-1960s he played regularly at Houston's Jester Lounge. In the late 1960s, through an introduction by tunesmith Mickey Newbury, he met Nashville producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement, who began a long association with Van Zandt as his producer. Van Zandt recorded and released several albums from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, including For the Sake of the Song, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, and High, Low and in Between. In 1975 he starred with other musicians, including Guy Clark and Steve Earle, in Heartworn Highway, a documentary film.
He wrote songs in a narrative style about his own experiences, including alcoholism, depression, and life on the road. In 1981 his song "If I Needed You," recorded by Emmylou Harris with Don Williams, reached Number 3 on the country charts. His best-known piece, "Pancho and Lefty," speaks of life on the road and hope for redemption. In 1983 a duet featuring Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the song Number 1 on the Billboard country charts.
Van Zandt's impression on other singers and songwriters was profound. Such performers as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Emmy Lou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Steve Earle fell under his influence. Earle proclaimed him "the best songwriter in the whole world." Van Zandt's impact even extended to the grunge rock band Mudhoney. He joked that he "was the mold that grunge grew out of." He engendered the same devotion in a loyal following of fans that some have called "cult-like" and "quasi-religious." He received critical acclaim, but the reclusive songwriter preferred to perform in mostly small venues. He did, however, tour as the opening act for The Cowboy Junkies in 1990.
Years of alcoholism, drug addiction, and bouts of depression took their toll. Van Zandt was planning to record a new album on Thurston Moore's (of Sonic Youth) Ecstatic Peace label in late 1996 when he injured his hip. After having hip surgery, Van Zandt died of cardiac arrest at his home in Smyrna, Tennessee, on January 1, 1997. His death came forty-four years to the day after that of his idol Hank Williams. Townes Van Zandt was buried in Dido Cemetery in Tarrant County, Texas.
During his life Van Zandt had signed with Tomato Records, the label of his longtime manager Kevin Eggers, which released a number of albums through the years. The label, as The Tomato Music Works Limited, issued many albums posthumously. After the songwriter's death, control of his records became a contentious legal battle between the record label and the Van Zandt family. A court eventually sided with the Van Zandt heirs. Van Zandt's third wife, Jeanene, along the songwriter's three children, began TVZ Records to reissue the late musician's recordings.
Musicians and musicologists continued to honor Van Zandt's legacy in the early twenty-first century. A documentary film about his life and music, Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt, was completed in 2004. He won the Americana Music Association's President's Award in 2007. A new biography, John Kruth's To Live's to Fly: Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, won ASCAP's award for Best Music Book of the Year in 2008. Van Zandt's song, "Nothin'," was covered in Raising Sand (2007) by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. The album won a Grammy in 2009. That same year, singer–songwriter Steve Earle released a tribute album of Van Zandt's songs, Townes, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album in 2010. Robert Plant subsequently recorded another Van Zandt song, “Harm’s Swift Way,” released on his album Band of Joy (2010). Townes Van Zandt was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2010 and the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association Hall of Fame in 2012. Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos, 1971–1972 was released on Omnivore Recordings in 2013. He was an inductee into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in 2015.